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Google X brings tech directly to our eyeballs

By Evan Wade / February 24, 2014

Google X brings tech directly to our eyeballs

Technology has always moved at breakneck speeds, but since the smartphone revolution, things have progressed at a pace best described as ridiculous — and much of the cool new stuff we’re seeing (or are about to see) comes from Google’s experimental arm, Google X. The secretive lab, most notably responsible for Google Glass, may have already dated their ambitious eyewear with their newest announcement, smart contact lenses.

Keeping a keen eye on diabetes

Google doesn’t solve problems — they attack them. Their latest prey is a medical ailment that affects nearly 400 million people across the globe, diabetes. Anyone who has or knows someone who has diabetes has seen waste baskets full of those tiny and costly little blood test strips. Google intends to put an end to the physical and financial pain of finger pricks once and for all with the smart contact lense.

In some ways, the project builds upon ideas the medical community has been kicking around for years. According to a CNN Money article, researchers have long wondered how bodily fluids like tears could be harnessed for diabetes testing. The smart contact lenses accomplish this by way of “tiny wireless chips and glucose sensors” transmitting data via a wireless antenna thinner than a human hair. Google is also looking into outfitting the lenses with LED lights, which would be used as indicators for abnormal blood sugar readings.

Even if the LED warnings never come to fruition, the benefits for people with diabetes could be quite literally life changing. In a blog post outlining their plans for the lenses, project co-founders Brian Otis and Babak Parviz say traditional blood sugar testing methods can feel like a “part-time job.” This, in turn, causes many diabetics to not test as frequently as they should. By giving diabetics an easier way to test and monitor their levels, the smart contact lenses could greatly reduce the risk of the slew of problems associated with hypoglycemia.

A person experiencing low blood sugar can feel (and act) drunk. As a matter of fact, the two conditions are so hard to tell apart, even medical professionals have problems distinguishing the difference between someone who is heavily intoxicated and a diabetic. It sounds chuckle worthy at first, but a diabetic who doesn’t properly test and treat their blood sugar can pose the same dangers behind the wheel as someone who had a few too many drinks at the bar. Then there are the long-term dangers of untreated diabetes. People who let blood sugar issues go unchecked can severely damage their eyes, hands, feet… the list goes on.

Unfortunately, we’re still a ways away from smart contact lenses moving from Google X’s test labs to our pharmacies. Even if the technology were perfected today, the project would still have to go through a battery of FDA tests and other regulatory approval before it hits the public. Fortunately, several tech journals report that Google is already in talks with regulatory agencies about the project.

…and the rest of the medical world

It’s easy to see why tech companies look for potential medical uses as they design and introduce new products. Outside of the whole “humanitarian” thing, there are boatloads of money to be made when hospitals and other medical offices order products en masse. Combine those facts with recent technological advancements and you have a burgeoning new medical philosophy known as mobile health (or mHealth), which has given rise to all kinds of cool technologies. Smartphones, for instance, have fundamentally changed the way doctors and other healthcare professionals access information, communicate with their patients and more. Wearables are shaping up to be game changers, too.

A nifty infographic at notes several ways Google Glass and other related technologies could help save lives. Physicians could have instant access to medical records, share what they’re seeing in real-time with colleagues around the world and get a good look at emergency patients before they even reach the hospital, and that’s just the beginning.

The biggest roadblock for most emerging medical tech appears to be space. When you’re dealing with gadgets small enough to slide beneath a person’s eyelid, most current technology is simply too large to fit. It’s certainly cool that humanity can create glucose sensors and wireless antennas small enough to sit on a contact lens, but those are fairly simple in the scope of hardware — and the more you want your gadget to do, the more complex it gets.

Processors and other crucial components offer similar problems. The good news? Things are shrinking. Researchers are well on their way to developing microscopic cameras, and microprocessors like Intel’s Quark line that will undoubtedly shrink as well. Cloud computing will also play a huge role in the future of smart contact lenses — when processing power doesn’t need a local source, developers can do amazing things with limited hardware.

Assuming the tech does shrink to suit the space, expect smart contact lenses to make an even bigger splash than Glass. In the medical field, the smaller and less intrusive a gadget is, the better. Cost, could also be a major reason for medical professionals to choose smart contact lenses over wearables, since technology tends to get quite a bit cheaper as it shrinks.

The future is in sight

Smart contact lenses will have to overcome a number of obstacles before we see big adoption rates by the medical community. Besides the fact that they haven’t been released to the general public, they also won’t be able to do as much as smartphones or wearables just yet. Then there’s the question of how much technology doctors and others are willing to adapt to. Professionals in any field would likely object to picking up a new device when they’re still learning (or on the fence about) a previous one.

That all said, the potential is definitely there, and if anyone can help the public realize it, it’s Google. With Glass still pending release, not to mention all the other crazy technology they have planned for us, Google can afford to wait a while to take their next unbelievable product to the market. They also have the option to release it for its original intended purpose, diabetes monitoring, and wait until subsequent hardware releases to include other capabilities. That may not be good enough for the mad scientists at Google X, but you can bet countless diabetics will be more than happy to throw away their finger pricks and pick up a box of smart contact lenses.

Learn more about mobile devices in the medical industry with the mHealth Trend Report.